Youssou N'Dour: Senegal's Saviour?
The king of African music has put his career on
hold to enter politics. His motivation? To save
his country from an octogenarian President who
refuses to relinquish his grip on power, he
tells Daniel Howden
By Daniel Howden
The Independent (UK)
February 25, 2012
As one of Africa's more beloved musicians and Senegal's
most famous son, the man clambering on top of the car
was accustomed to crowds.
If the cheering faces were familiar, not so the
armoured police loading teargas into grenade launchers
only a rock's throw away. And someone whose stage
presence has been described variously as serene and
evanescent started to look uncomfortable.
Youssou N'Dour was having trouble striking a pose. With
no microphone in front of him he seemed unsure what to
do with his hands, eventually opting to fold his arms
and glare down the street at the police.
For several minutes, while everyone waited, he said
nothing. This rawness and uncertainty in the midst of a
stand-off between protesters and police earlier this
week captured something of the troubles that the world
music icon has had in making the transition to
A singer, actor and businessman whose success beyond
his West African homeland has helped to define Senegal,
N'Dour's bid for the presidency was ruled out on a
technicality last month. Excluded from the election he
has tried to use his popularity to boost opposition
efforts to stop this weekend's polls from going ahead.
Struck from the ballot, he was barred this week from
entering Dakar's Place De L'Independence, which
opposition supporters have been battling to reach for
days in the hope they can turn it into the outpost for
an African Spring.
So far it hasn't worked and when the 52-year-old came
down from his car on Tuesday to join the push against
the police line he was barraged with teargas along with
everyone else, and forced into a bruised retreat after
being hit by a projectile. The risks involved in
leaving the stage for the stump in a ruthless political
season in Senegal have left some observers wondering
whether N'Dour's new career will be over before the
last votes are cast tomorrow.
The acclaimed singer insists this is not the case. "It
was not an easy decision for me between music and
politics. I am in politics and I won't just stay for
the short term," he said. He describes his music career
as "on hold" rather than over. "My music is very
important but it's not more important than Senegal and
Senegal is in a dark situation," he explained.
Sitting behind a giant red mosaic table decorated with
musical notes in the boardroom at his TFM radio
station, he speaks of his "mission" to topple Abdoulaye
Wade, accusing Senegal's octogenarian president of
leading the country down the "road to chaos".
The office is decorated with the trophies of a career
that stretches back into the 1980s. Recent gongs like
the Grammy he won in 2005 for best world music album,
Egypt, sit alongside souvenirs from an Amnesty
International tour he shared with Bono and Bruce
Springsteen, among others. In the stairwell outside,
gold and platinum discs from his worldwide cross-over
hit "Seven Seconds", recorded with Neneh Cherry, and
So, which he made with Peter Gabriel, are reminders of
a career in which he has successfully mixed local dance
music with hip-hop, pop and jazz.
The Dakar boy with roots on his maternal side in the
"griot" tradition of West African singer-storytellers
has shared a stage or a studio with generations of
Western stars from Lou Reed and Paul Simon to Wyclef
Jean and Dido.
Until recently this fame was available on tap to
Senegal's leaders as they looked to promote a poor but
peaceful country to a foreign audience who might not
otherwise have noticed it beyond a shock win over
France in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup.
Yet, a deep enmity with the current president, who is
being accused of destabilising the region's oldest
democracy in his determination to stay in power, has
ended that relationship. Mr Wade who claims to be 85,
although most of the residents of sand-blown Dakar
think he is older than 90, has ignored both the
promises he made - and the term limits that he wrote
into the constitution - and decided to run for a third
A leader who has played the elder statesman on the
African political scene, jetting around the continent
as a mediator and calling on Colonel Gaddafi to step
down during the Libyan conflict, has proved to have a
tin ear at home. He will be the oldest man to run for
elected office and has dismissed the anger surrounding
his candidacy as "the wind that shakes the leaves but
never becomes a hurricane".
The singer who challenged him says that he would not
have been barred from running on a technicality if he
hadn't been a threat to the Wade regime. His short-
lived challenge has at least "unmasked" the aged head
of state, he insists. "I know I play an important role
in the image of Senegal and this has shown the true
face of Wade to the rest of the world," he said.
The star's presence has turned what would have been a
low-key African poll into something of a show. On the
streets of Dakar in the past week, journalists have
often outnumbered the protesters.
N'Dour's HQ in an affluent suburb of the capital
belongs to another of his identities - media mogul.
With earnings that amount to half of Senegal's entire
music industry, he has bought himself a radio and
television station and is the owner of one of the
And while all this would suggest a shrewd operator, his
move into politics has not been so sure-footed. One of
N'Dour's closest aides admitted having "no idea" about
what was coming when the singer abruptly announced he
would stand for president.
The day before his confrontation with the police he was
still planning to fly to Paris and only cancelled at
the last minute to attend the protest. When he did
eventually join opposition leaders in an attempt to
rally in the city's Independence Square, he arrived
late and not even his guitarist Jimi Mbaye knew what he
was planning. The most recognisable face in Senegal was
lost in a convoy led by former prime minister Idrissa
Seck, who, like many presidential candidates, is
tainted by his proximity to Mr Wade.
N'Dour has refused to call for a boycott or to endorse
any of the other candidates running, leaving the
president to openly mock the divided opposition and
boast that he will win outright in the first round by
taking over half the vote.
These missteps have been enjoyed by some of Senegal's
educated elite, who remain suspicious of a low-born
singer. In private, even some of his fellow musicians
have cast doubt on his credentials, with one asking
whether "Britain would better off with David Bowie
replacing David Cameron".
Abdoulaye Niang, a sociology professor from Senegal's
Gaston Berger University, disagrees with the star's
detractors. Recently he was interviewing students for a
new intake in cultural studies and asked them to define
success. Almost without fail they talked about Youssou
N'Dour. "He is their model for success," said the
academic. "He may be even more important after this
[move into politics] than before."
Despite questions over whether he will stay the course,
the singer's legendary nightclub, Thiossane, on the
fringe of the Grand Dakar slums, will be staying shut
for the time being, according to its owner. "What is a
politician?" he asks. "Here they are rubbish and we are
reaching the end of that cycle."
He questions whether the people still have faith in
elites who have grown rich while failing to improve the
lot of the majority. "I have given them hope that even
an average Senegalese has the right to become
president," he claims.
There are those, even in his entourage, who fret that
the singer's bruising foray on to the political scene
might diminish his standing at home - but there's
little sign of it so far. With the questions over, the
star power is too much for a Senegalese translator who
approaches him with a mobile phone and an imploring
smile. Switching to his native Wolof, Senegal's finest
voice tells the interpreter's mother that "Yes, this is
Youssou N'Dour". Judging by the delighted noises coming
from the phone, she's happy to hear it.
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